By Paul Taylor | Reuters
- July 21, 2014
BRUSSELS — If “Europe’s Got Talent” were a television show, it would have been taken off the air years ago as a slow-motion contest rigged to reward mediocrity.
Few things make the European Union look less attractive to its citizens and to the wider world than the secretive process of filling the top power positions in the 28-nation bloc every five years.
The winners are chosen in late-night horse-trading not so much for their experience, management skill or expertise, but because no one feels strongly enough to veto them, they tick the right boxes, and the judges are promised favors in return for voting for them.
The heads of state and government of the union’s member nations, some of whom may be job candidates themselves, constitute the selection panel. Their failure last week to reach a package deal on a new European foreign policy chief, a president of the European Council to act as chairman of their summit meetings, and a permanent chairman for the group of eurozone finance ministers, looked messy, but it was no disaster. They will try again in late August and may have some better-qualified candidates then.
But the first round highlighted some of the features of an opaque system that gives more weight to criteria such as party affiliation, gender balance, sharing between small and big countries, and a fair distribution of spoils among north, south, east and west, than to ideas or ability.
After trying to craft a deal, the European Council president, Herman Van Rompuy, observed with frustration that it is hard to balance all those factors when there are only two or three posts in play and 28 nations required for a consensus.
The summit meeting ended in deadlock because Poland and Baltic states wanted one of the top jobs for a candidate from the ex-communist states that have been members for a decade now.
Federica Mogherini, Italy’s foreign minister for just four months, appeared to be coasting toward the foreign policy job with strong backing from the Socialist prime minister, Matteo Renzi, until the easterners raised objections, saying she lacked experience and was too soft on Russia in the Ukraine crisis.
Ms. Mogherini’s key selling points, apart from youth (she is 41), are that she is a woman from the center-left, balancing out the European Commission president-elect, Jean-Claude Juncker, a center-right male.
The Danish prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, started as the favorite to succeed Mr. Van Rompuy, but France was uneasy that her country is not a member of the 18-nation eurozone, and the job involves acting as chairman at summit meetings of the currency union.
In such opaque races, early front-runners often fall by the wayside and surprise contenders surface late in the game, leaving no time for cool-headed assessment of their suitability. The selection in 2009 of the first European Union high representative for foreign policy — also to be a vice president of the European Commission and head of a nascent European External Action Service — was a caricature of those pitfalls.
The main European leaders agreed that a Briton should get the job, hoping London would nominate then-Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who was highly regarded by his peers. But Mr. Miliband opted to stay home in hopes of leading the Labour Party, and the post went at the last minute to Catherine Ashton, then the European Union’s trade commissioner, who had no foreign policy experience. Avoiding an awkward parliamentary by-election was a key factor since she was a member of the House of Lords, Britain’s unelected upper chamber.
While Ms. Ashton had some successes, brokering a first accord between Serbia and Kosovo and leading negotiations for an interim nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, critics say she has too often been missing in action closer to home.
No self-respecting company, civil service or charity would set about selecting a chairman, chief executive or finance director the way the European Union does it. There are few declared candidates and no job interviews or opportunities to set out a program. Contenders often have to deny any interest in the job they seek for fear of political humiliation back home if they are rejected.
Euro-skeptic politicians cite backroom personnel deals as evidence of the bloc’s “democratic deficit” and the lack of connection between voters and European Union institutions.
Yet possible alternatives — such as directly electing the union’s main office-holders, or having member states pick a president who has a free hand to select a team of top talents — are unacceptable to the 28 national governments.
Ironically, the body meant to represent the common European interest, the European Commission, is the last bastion of sovereign equality: Each state gets one commissioner.
It’s hard to imagine Germany or France — let alone Britain — allowing the commission president to pick, say, a distinguished economist critical of the government or a trade expert from an opposition party, however brilliant.
Given the suboptimal appointment process, it’s a wonder that any of the union’s top executives have turned out to be great leaders. Yet Jacques Delors, who was second choice in 1984 after leaders rejected another Frenchman seen as too federalist, was the most effective chief since the creation of the union, building the single market and laying the foundations for the euro single currency in his decade at the helm.
After Mr. Delors, some governments quietly swore never again to pick such a strong figure. His successors were selected partly for their willingness to defer to the big member states.
Mr. Van Rompuy himself was a late entrant into the race after former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s bid to become the first European Council president had burned out.
Where the media-savvy Mr. Blair might have been a grandstanding foreign policy player, jetting around the globe, the low-profile Mr. Van Rompuy mostly stayed home, patiently forging compromises that held the eurozone together in the debt crisis.
Perhaps the selection system has some advantages after all.